Opening the Gates

Torres del Paine National Park’s Mechanized Motives.

Words and Photos by Jay Goodrich

Things changed mere moments after navigating the last switchback. The wind howled down the valley at an easy 60-plus miles per hour. Heather was barely able to stand, her GORE-TEX jacket flapping and snapping like a wet towel across butt cheeks. We laughed, unable to catch our breath. The wind was at our backs, meaning we’d travel the 10 miles back to the rendezvous point at super-human speed. 

It was welcome assistance. Though only our third ride of the season, and the third 30-plus mile ride in as many days, we were far from our backyard of Jackson, WY: a continent and a half, in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Fifteen years after falling in love with Patagonia, I loved it at this moment more than ever… 

My obsession with this place began in 2003, when I was given a coffee-table book titled Edge of the Earth | Corner of the Sky by a Seattle-based nature photographer named Art Wolfe. Inside were spectacular low-light landscape photos, depicting Los Torres and the Cuernos del Paine, located in Torres del Paine National Park.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, named the 5th most beautiful place on the planet by National Geographic, and dubbed the 8th Wonder of the World by TripAdvisor, Torres del Paine is a world-famous trekking mecca. It is known among hikers and backpackers for two infamous routes: the O and W Circuits, multi-day hikes through some of the most scenic landscapes on the planet.

Torres del Paine is not the largest park in the world, though still impressive. At just shy of 500,000 acres, it is larger than the 310,000-acre Grand Teton National Park, just outside my home base of Jackson, WY, but (much) smaller than Yellowstone National Park, which covers over 2.2 million acres. While Grand Teton and Yellowstone see 3.3 and 4.1 million visitors, respectively, Torres del Paine sees 250,000 visitors per year.

Beyond visitor numbers, Torres del Paine differs from the American National Park model in one kay aspect: the one that stipulates “no mechanized travel allowed.” Unrivaled, national park beauty that you can ride. Legally.

I discovered this after reading a random blog discussing mountain bike access on the single track of Torres del Paine, which started my mental wheels spinning. In the words of documentary film maker Jeff Johnson, “A friend once told me, the best journeys answer questions, that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.”

I got my first answer during my third trip to the country, in 2016. My guide was a retired pro-skateboarder, an Aussie named Chris Theobald. Known among the locals as “El Canguro”, the Spanish equivalent of “The Kangaroo,” Chris fell in love with the changing light, the sweeping valleys, and high granite peaks of this place, and decided he should stay for a while. A while ended up being six years.

I am a pretty direct guy. My East Coast roots dictate a no-bullshit approach to life. Once I knew Chris was someone I could get along with, I asked him about mountain biking in the park. His immediate reaction was it wasn’t possible, but I told him about the online article. Months later, after talking to “his guy,” Chris confirmed the story was correct; we could potentially ride in Torres del Paine. The Canguro started working the angles to set things up. 

Two days after packing up the bikes and 27 hours of travel later, we were sitting in my favorite coffee shop in Puerto Natales waiting to meet our guide, Mauricio Quinteros Ozellana. Mauricio is a stocky Columbian, whose shaved, ripped muscular calves immediately belied his obsession with riding. 

Mauricio took us to one of the two bike shops in town, El Rey de la Bicicleta. El Rey has been run by three generations of the same family. Heather was soon talking with Andres Quenchugaray, Maria Verategua, Sandra Quenchugaray and Carlos Mansilla. I bike-geeked around a shop that would potentially have replacement parts for my custom Santa Cruz.

Mauricio was the sole catalyst behind riding in this region; it was he who convinced the park to open its gates to mountain bikers. He did so by simply walking into the Torres del Paine headquarters doors one day, and starting a discussion with the superintendent about riding in the park. He explained his dedication to the environment and how mountain biking could potentially help with park revenue and increasing visitor numbers. 

The park officials agreed some of the trails within the park would be acceptable for bikes, while others could be ridden with prior permission (and/or you had Mauricio as your guide).

To assuage our lingering American doubt, Heather, Canguro, and I walked into the park headquarters and started talking with one of the rangers, who pulled out a formal list of the bike-accessible trails. Eight were open to anyone; a ninth, Puente Weber to Laguna Verde, required advanced permission, with approval based on the season and general trail activity. In the park’s view, horse access and mountain bike access were one in the same. Considering the U.S. National Park’s position, I was floored. 

Canguro had recently started guiding for a new destination resort called Awasi, and during our first dinner we learned the lodge had its own singletrack, which hooked into another longer ride: the Sierra Contrera to Estancia Gemita to Salto Las Chinas. Canguro was going to be our own private shuttle driver and Mauricio was going to take us on the trails that we couldn’t ride without him, plus a few local favorites. Then Heather and I were going to tackle the rides inside the park on our own, with Canguro picking us up and dropping us off when and where needed.

Our first mountain bike ride of the season began in the pre-dawn darkness, 180-degrees south of home. We’d skipped breakfast and were still battling a travel hangover, and as we began pushing our bikes up a dark, unbelievably steep piece of singletrack, I began questioning what we were doing here. Then the darkness began lightening into dawn, and as the trail leveled; we threw our legs over our bikes. The loamy singletrack ducked into the lenga forest, framing the surrounding Paine Massif with autumn leaves and a hint of pink alpenglow. We reached the top of the Sierra Contrera single track  and were rewarded with a massive, high speed descent onto the ranch lands of Estancia Gemita. Canguro was waiting with breakfast and maté, a local herbal tea full of antioxidants.

As we sipped maté and filled our stomachs with homemade snacks, Heather noticed a kid’s bike leaning against the main Estancia house. We asked the gaucho if we could use it for some photos, and he approved with a nonchalant gesture. Heather began free-riding the fully rigid, chainless, 12-inch wheeled beast around the property, warming our chilled autumn bones with laughter.

The next day found us heading down a 4×4 double track that the park system uses to bring supplies into the Refugio Las Torres, similar to a Euorpean backcountry hut where you can grab eats, sheets and water. This is a trail that only someone like Mauricio, who has obtained permission from the park service, can access. Mauricio is a super fit rider who is used to sending these long rides on a bike the equivalent of a Walmart Special. He told us our bikes would cost as much as a new car in Chile. I chuckled and told him that it isn’t any different at home.

After an initial smack-in-the-face climb up where only 4x4s dare, we hooked into a paralleling stretch of singletrack that overlooked an amazing river valley. I have a bit of an obsession with trees, and the lenga trees—a type of beech—had me wanting photos around every corner.

The GORE-TEX flapping wind began as we hit the final switchback connecting to the trail back. Patagonia is known for its wind and changing environment because of how little land there is between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Things change dramatically and the sixty plus mile per hour wind at our backs wasn’t a curse, but a blessing.

We hauled-ass back to the truck as the day’s light began to wane, riding right into a lenga forest that was burned during a 2005 fire accidentally started by a Czech backpacker. Forest fires here, unlike in the U.S., are not a natural part of the ecosystem because lightning is almost non-existent. The forest is not able to regenerate, and once burned, will never grow back.  However, this natural landscape still possesses unbelievable beauty.

The next day Mauricio invited us to a mountain bike race across the border into Argentina, in a town named 28 de Noviembre, or “November 28th”—the date that several settlements merged into one town.

The start line looked as if we’d stepped back into the 1980s, a theme common to Patagonian mountain biking in general. Most trails are unmaintained and unmarked, and most sponsored riders are on either fully-rigid or hardtail frames. In contrast, many of the riders left the starting line while texting on their mobile devices, a no-stress beginning to a 30-mile ride. 

The race circuit connected us to a local park named Lake Sofia, outside of Torres del Paine and about 15 miles north of the town of Puerto Natales. We felt dwarfed by the surrounding peaks, and what started as a late afternoon ride ended with us rolling back to Canguro’s truck in the dark.

Our last ride with Mauricio was another early morning, to ride another regional favorite. Beginning on the shores of Laguna Azul, an aptly named body of turquoise water right at the base of the Los Torres—the twin granite spires that are a main focal point of the Paine Massif. The rising sun lit the clouds in crimson fire. Heather and Mauricio rode off on single track still barely visible to the naked eye.

On the final miles of this ride we ran into a heard of guanaco—a camelid native to South America and the prey staple of the puma—immediately followed by the biggest pile of puma poop on the planet. For reference, it looks like human poop only much larger.

Our afternoon had us getting “All Inclusived” in our private hot tub looking out at the Paine Massif. As Heather and I ripped into our third cerveza each, Canguro showed up on our back porch in a bit of a panic, “Hey guys, put some clothes on, I have two pumas for us!” Within minutes we were Mario Andretti-four-by-fouring to hopefully get a glimpse of our elusive neighbors. We watched in absolute amazement as a male and female puma mated in front of our small group, until the female had enough and they headed for some privacy. Cerveza in hand, I looked over at Heather and Canguro. “Well shit, that ain’t something you see every day.”

After watching some frisky cats, we finished our beers and took an evening ride up a long meandering valley on the southern end of Torres del Paine. We rode from wind riddled plains into tight and technical single track. Along the way we ran into some backpackers from California, who were in disbelief upon hearing that what we were doing was totally legal and legit. 

The ending descent of this ride brought us into a ferry dock that hikers use as a starting point for a multi-day backpack of the W Circuit. We could see that the boat was already there and a couple of dozen backpackers were lined up for the shuttle. Heather dropped the shale- and slate-riddled slope like she was in a World Cup Downhill event, while many of the backpackers cheered her on. I was the proud husband.

One of our best days riding in twenty years began just as the sun crested the horizon in the park, riding another sticky gravel singletrack from the Paso de La Feria to Laguna Amarga. The Cuernos del Paine were our mountainous backdrop as we headed into what we called the Valley of Death. 

I felt as if we were being watched. Hundreds of guanaco bones littered both sides of the trail, like we’d stumbled into the home of a monster. As Heather and I looked around, my natural predatory instinct voiced how perfect this canyon was to hunt. High rock outcroppings on either side, it was a perfect puma sniper zone. Heather immediately suggested that we continue on.

It was back at the truck that Canguro showed us the photos of two pumas looking down on us as we exited to Laguna Amarga.

Our final evening in Patagonia had us heading to a lamb barbecue at the Estancia La Criollita. This estancia is managed by a father-son team, Victor Sr. and Victor Jr. Victor Sr. spoke little to no English and his entire existence was to maintain this property of 15,000 acres below a steep rocky peak called the Trident. Victor Jr. was a typical mid-twenties guy with iPhone and Instagram account in hand. He balanced the ways of his father and looked to new sources of revenue, knowing full well that the future was changing quickly.

When we pulled up he told us that he wanted us to sample a trail he was building for mountain bikers. He had never ridden a bike, but figured if horses could do it, so could cyclists, and he wasn’t that far off. Victor Jr. loaded our bikes into the ranch pickup, layered them with soft cozy sheep pelts and drove us to the start of his new trail at the property’s boundary with Argentina. It was only a mile long piece of trail, but its proximity to the surrounding peaks was almost indescribable.

While pedaling back to the house for dinner, Heather and I talked about the future of riding in Patagonia in general. It is a place where nature still dominates, where the trails have no markings and little to no maintenance. It reminds me of the riding in Colorado from the early 90s—never-ending singletrack with unobstructed views of amazement. A time when we explored on bikes because it was faster than hiking, and we wanted some backcountry summer adventure.

Together with two real-life guachos and their families we ate lamb and drank copious amounts of Cerveza Austral. There were multiple conversations happening in both Spanish and English. Heather asked how Victor Jr. chose the lamb to kill for this evening’s feast. He laughingly replied, “Simple, I find the ugliest one.” Everyone at the table burst into laughter.

This was a surreal moment for me. The moment when you get butterfiles in your stomach because you know a change is eminent. Surrounded by friends, old and new, Jeff Johnson’s quote came to mind and I thought of home. I began to question the nature of what this trip provided us.

What if the U.S. opened its wilderness land to mountain biking like Torres del Paine? While an entire culture of riders would probably be elated by all of the potential new adventures, would our park system truly benefit? We are talking about a much larger population and visitor density than they see down in Patagonia. 

Then I thought about all the mountain bikers I have ever met. How most of their personalities are not that far off from Mauricio’s. WE would probably be the stewards that our park system has been looking for, beyond any hiker, backpacker or equestrian. Because, as mountain bikers, we feel obligated to work on the land we ride.

The laughter ceases as a cheers is raised to our trip and eating the ugliest, yet best tasting lamb I have ever had. TIME TO EXIT.

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